The Model T ranks with the airplane, radio, television, and the digital computer as one of the key inventions that helped shape the twentieth century. Historian David Hounshell called the Ford Model T “the only revolutionary automobile of the twentieth century,” because what it did could be done only once. “Its design and mass production made people want an automobile.”
Ford engineers never set out to change the world. They just designed a car to meet the needs of American farmers: light, rugged, simple to operate and repair, and able to successfully navigate the abysmal roads typical of early 1900s America. By the time the Model T reached the end of its production run in 1927 it was being assembled in nineteen countries and sold in many more.
The Model T cannot be separated from its method of manufacture. Henry Ford’s relentless search for ever more production at ever lower cost led to the development of mass production: standardized products assembled from interchangeable parts, by workers doing repetitive tasks while the work flows by in an endless stream. To get his workers to stay and do this often boring but nevertheless demanding work, Ford eventually had to pay very high wages. In 1914 he began offering his workers $5 per day, double the prevailing wage. As his methods spread to other automakers, the auto industry became the major driving force in the United States’ economy.
Industries around the world adopted, adapted, and often improved upon the methods pioneered by Ford. Mass production and mass consumption became two of the characteristics of life in twentieth century industrialized nations.
American mass production industries were essential to winning World War II. None of the other belligerents could match the United States’ ability to turn out guns, helmets, tanks, ammunition, and combat boots.
The Model T’s most visible legacy was mass automobility. The Ford’s low price put auto ownership within the reach of the middle class and planted the desire for auto ownership in the mind of nearly everyone. It spawned the improvement of America’s awful roads, culminating in the vast interstate highway system. Cities were reshaped to adapt to the needs of drivers, and automobility facilitated the growth of sprawling new suburbs, with their attendant schools, retail stores, and industries. Along the way we not only changed the way we live, but also the way we die, as auto accidents became a major new cause of death and injury. The automobile elevated the significance of petroleum-rich states like Oklahoma and Texas, and made petroleum-rich countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iran both wealthy and strategically important on the world stage.
Small wonder then, that decades after the last Model T was built, one observer would call Ford’s Model T factory in Highland Park, Michigan, “the place where the mainspring of the twentieth century was wound.”
About the Author
Bob Casey is a graduate mechanical engineer who spent 12 years working for Bethlehem Steel. He worked as a historian and curator at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers History Center, Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, the Detroit Historical Museum, and Henry Ford Museum. He retired from the Henry Ford Museum in 2012 after 21 years as the John and Horace Dodge Curator of Transportation. He wrote The Model T: A centennial History (2008) and coauthored Driving America: The Henry Ford’s Automotive Collection (2013). He currently serves as the Secretary of the Society of Automotive Historians.
Image courtesy of Visit South Bend.